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Cover Story: Lamb of God • Revitalize The Soil

| September 30, 2022

Lamb of God 2022

It’s never a good battle strategy to telegraph your punches, swears Lamb of God growler L. Randall Blythe. Several years ago, he foresaw a possible post-EMP, Road Warrior atavistic future when banks have all failed and suggested, matter-of-factly, that when the grid went down, it would just be “me and my guns.” Did the Virginian have a hidden armory, a cache of survivalist weapons just waiting to be tapped in the wake of societal chaos? He laughed with a maybe, maybe not innocence at the time but never really clarified. And in March of 2020, when it really did seem like the world was going to hell in a coronavirus hand basket, the Cody Lundin-trained doomsday prepper alluded to having a few “bug-out bags” packed full of the necessary gear and swore he had just purchased land in an unspecified South American country where he was planning to disappear if social structures really did collapse around us. The bottom hadn’t fallen out yet, but the pandemic was still in its infancy, and who knew what would happen when the still-employed Haves met the disenfranchised Have-nots on the street once all the lockdowns were lifted? Still, he nervously noted then, cracks in the carefully-ordered infrastructure were beginning to show. And this year, as Lamb of God (with drummer Art Cruz, bassist John Campbell, and twin jet-turbine-velocity guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler) releases Omens, its more measured, insidious juggernaut of a followup to 2020’s explosive eponymous effort, the rocker is still maintaining that stoic poker face and not showing all of his cards.

Maybe it’s because Blythe has had plenty of time to reflect. But Omens, despite its hammering squeal-chorded assault, feels far more grounded, clear-sighted, to an almost comforting degree. And this time, the lyricist has found solace in the Biblical (“Gomorrah” and the title track), our shared mortality (“Ditch,” “September Song,”) and even the morbid musings of one of Richmond’s favorite literary sons, Edgar Allan Poe (“Nevermore,” “Vanishing,” and To the Grave,” which cautions that “The only thing to fear/ Remains inside unseen”). Calmly, wisely, Blythe, 51, has been reading and watching the increasingly off-putting news and quietly considering his response, the sanest path forward through a terrain that’s truly gotten batshit crazy. To start with, he says, he’s identified and isolated two key 2022 villains: “Self-interest and fear, and that’s not the way I want to live my life, chasing after some sort of banal material legacy that I won’t ever be able to enjoy. But there’s a sense of fear, I think, that has pervaded our society, and people want something that makes ‘em feel better.” As in the ill-fated, pleasure-seeking metropolis of cesspool in “Gomorrah,” he adds, “which definitely paints a picture of societal collapse, and perhaps personal collapse.”

The rocker has combed through philosophy books over the pandemic — many of them dating back to ancient Rome — looking for modern solutions to mankind’s seemingly imminent extinction. And he partially blames our own addiction to the convenience of technology. “We’ve become pretty myopic, in the sense that we only view right now the latest, greatest, most current thing that’s happening as the only reality that’s ever existed,” he grumbles. “So that’s why people’s attention spans and ability for critical thought has diminished so much because they’re fed this digital blitzkrieg of bright, shiny things, brought to — thank you very much — by MegaCorp Advertising.” The oft-repeated newsfeed word that made him cringe during the lockdown, he says, was ‘unprecedented’ because we’ve experienced all of this before, even violent toilet-paper hoarding. So pay attention — we have been here before. And this word gets thrown a lot, but this is how fascism happens.” But Blythe showed a few more of his cards, like the location of his tropical retreat — Ecuador — and his initially secret mission for going there — an ambitious reforestation program he and a friend have undertaken to help reclaim crucial parts of the jungle.

IE: Even though we were both shivering like Chihuahuas Day One for our last interview back in March of 2020, I still had high hopes for humanity to take the time to do a total or at least partial reset. But you know, we seem to have learned nothing.

L. RANDALL BLYTHE: Ha! Right. Yes. And this is something that I’m currently struggling with, very hard, as I’m writing a new book. I’m working on a new non-fiction book — I wanted to write fiction, but my agent said, “You need another non-fiction book.” And he was pushing me toward what they call, I guess, an ‘inspirational memoir’ or whatever. So I’m writing this book, and it’s about different perspectives from other people that I’ve tried to incorporate into my own life and take something from. Something positive from —things I have learned from people other than me. And it’s been very difficult to maintain any sort of positivity for a while now. It really has. Things have just gotten screwier and screwier and screwier. And I’m thinking like, “What is the cause of this? Why are people acting the way they do?” And I think that there’s a cult of toxic, narcissistic individualism that has made people think, for some insane reason, that their uneducated opinions are just as valid as those of world-renowned experts. On a bunch of different topics, everything from medicine to foreign policy to economics. I mean, I am in full possession of the fact that I am a man of average intelligence. But I’m smart enough and emotionally stable enough to realize that if I don’t know something, I need to refer to someone smarter than myself. But I think in today’s societal climate, people just don’t want to accept that. And they don’t want to accept uncertainty in their lives, so they go looking for answers and wind up finding some kook conspiracy theorist who provides them with a really strange, in my mind, explanation for things for which there are no concrete answers. It’s like a security blanket for the witless. I think people don’t like feeling insecure, unsure, etc, so they’re looking for someone to give them an answer that reassures them that none of their problems are their own fault, that someone else is to blame.

IE: Fortunately, the futuristic Idiocracy computer has tabulated a new official name for you — Not Sure. And Carl’s, Jr. will now be taking your children away!

LRB: Ha! Yes! We aren’t drinking enough Brawndo, homie! We don’t have enough electrolytes! I wish Alonzo Hector Camacho — I can’t even remember his whole name — I wish he would come to be in charge. It would make more sense than some of the things that I’ve seen of late.

IE: James Lovelock, the scientist who created the Gaia Theory, just passed away. And he warned us years ago of the coming floods, fires, droughts, and mass migrations.

LRB: Yeah. And the Gaia Theory, I think, is kind of playing out. And I’ve felt that for a while, and I’ve addressed this in song years ago — we had a song called “Reclamation.” The Earth is our host, and if we are only parasitic upon it, eventually, the Earth will cleanse itself of us. Even if we wipe every living thing off the planet and it has to start over again, from a single-celled organism, it’s like George Carlin said — “The planet’s gonna be fine. People are probably gonna go away, but the planet’s gonna be fine. We are not respecting the planet, and the water levels are rising, you know? And if you study what’s going on in Greenland and all that stuff, it’s jacking up, and I see that with my own two eyes in coastal areas. This is not a theoretical thing to me — it’s physically manifested because I spend a lot of time in the water, by the sea, surfing. And I see rising sea levels. And not just in some places like Outer Banks, which is a barrier island in North Carolina. I surfed a lot because, as such, it’s constantly shifting. But in rocky coastal areas, the beach is diminishing as the water rises. You go back, and there’s less and less beach there. In tropical areas, I see the mangroves disappearing. And all this is due to climate change and the rising sea levels. I find it both absurd and entirely depressing that there are people already trading in water futures. That’s happening. When the stockbrokers are looking at what’s going to come, like a shortage of fresh water, it can make you a bit cynical. But I can only control myself. That’s one of the most important things to remember — that I have precisely no control over anyone or anything except for myself, and I can only try and lead my life in a manner that leads me to be able to lay my head down on my pillow at night and say, “Well, dude — you tried.”

IE: Unlike Kevin Costner, you haven’t grown a set of gills yet.

LRB: I keep hoping! Waterworld! What a great movie! At one time, it was the most expensive movie ever made!

IE: But you’re very resourceful. When did you get hip to selling Cameo video greetings and then funneling those profits back into jungle reclamation in South America? 

LRB: Well, with the Cameo stuff, Cameo had been after me for a long time to do it, right? But punk rock guilt kept me from doing it because the title of it is “Get messages from celebrities, and I just don’t feel like a celebrity — I just don’t. I don’t like to apply that word to myself, and I don’t like ‘rock star,’ either. It’s a bummer, for some reason. So punk rock guilt kept me from doing it. But at the start of the pandemic, I bought a fair amount of property — along with my friend Carlos and his family — down in Ecuador, former cattle land. And at the time, I couldn’t say where it was because I didn’t want to screw it up. But this former cattle land was totally beaten down because Ecuador has the highest deforestation rate of any country in the Western hemisphere, and I go down there to surf a lot with my buddy, Carlos. His wife is American, so I met him here, surfing. And he knows what I do now, but when we met, we were just surfing — he’s not a metalhead or anything. So he invited me to go surfing with him, and after several trips, he had bought some property, and he brought up this other property that had become available that had been cattle land that they’d been grazing for 40 years, and the ground was just compacted and clear-cut.

And I had a fairly significant chunk of change, and I thought, “Screw it — I’m gonna go on tour, so I’ll make this money back, and it feels good to do something.”And that was right at the beginning of the pandemic. So then the pandemic hit, and It was like, “Oh! I’m not going back on tour to make money — I’m not doing anything. I’m staying home!” Because it wasn’t just buying the land — we had to have an environmental scientist come and look at it, we had to break the land up, we had to fence the land, we had to pay local people to work it. And there’s a significant outpouring of capital for that. So I’m like, “How can I make some money during this time? Oh yeah! That Cameo thing!” And from the beginning, I was like, “I’m gonna use most of this money for a reforestation project.” And I have not quite broken even yet for all the money I’ve put into it, but it has defrayed the cost. And actually, I made back my initial outpouring of cash, but I’ve bought more property, and I’ve been able to pay people to work this land, and I funded it all through Cameo. So I thought, “Well, now I can use this so-called ‘celebrity’ for good.” And I bought the land without ever having set foot on it — I mean, I’d seen it across the toad, and it was a dead field. But I went back a few months ago, and it’s amazing, and it’s all green. And I filmed a bunch of footage and put together a short little film about it, and I did that as sort of a thank you to the people who bought those Cameos from me, and also as a bit of transparency. So I framed me doing Cameo as a way to help the environment from the beginning, and I wanted to show people that that was exactly what I was doing, you know?

IE: Talk to me like I’m five. How does one reclaim such perpetually non-arable land?

LRB: Well, for one thing, the Earth is just completely compacted. And it’s had a non-indigenous form of grass growing on it for years, so cattle can graze it. And after decades and decades of cows being on this land, they just compact the Earth, compact the Earth, and the grass doesn’t nourish the soil, so now it’s just barren land. So A) You have to get the cattle off of it and fence it off, and B) You have to bring in a plow to break it up so that plants can actually get into the ground; C) You have to try and revitalize the soil and re-plant indigenous species that will grow harmoniously with each other. So it’s not just like, “Oh, let’s buy this land and just let it do its thing.” We need to work this land, too and give it a boost. And Ecuador is on the equator, though, so once stuff starts growing there, once you give it just that little bit of a push, it takes care of itself. So we had to pay people to go and water these plants, individually,    but that’s okay because that’s also putting money into the local economy down there. Because I can’t just be a gringo, buying a bunch of land, going, “I’m doing something good for the planet!” That is not my country — it’s Carlos’s country. But I need to respect the locals there and try and provide them with a way to make a living that’s sustainable and doesn’t involve clear-cutting. Because there’s a ton of illegal balsa logging, and it’s destroying the environment down there. The indigenous people are having their forests taken from them, so the first crop that we were doing was balsa trees. I mean, it’s not my fault that people are assholes and are going down there and logging illegally. But if we can make a conscious decision to grow this stuff, we can hope that we can at least a little bit mitigate some of this shit, you know?

IE: How is the wildlife there now? Has it again assumed control?

LRB: It’s incredible. Like I said, the land was cattle land for forty-some-odd years. But recently, people in the area, for the first time in ages, have started to hear howler monkeys again, back in the area. And they’re awesome. So we’re trying to work with not just the flora but the fauna. And the wildlife in Ecuador is freakin; incredible — there’s so much crazy shit down there. So we’re just trying to provide a habitat, you know? Because animals are here for a reason. Nature works the way that it does for a reason. So maybe I’ll just disappear into the jungle and find Baloo someday! But the jungle produces a lot of oxygen. They call it the planet’s lungs, and the jungle is being eradicated. So we’re just trying to fight that, you know? So Carlos and I need to establish a foundation because right now, it’s just him and I doing this privately. But we’re thinking about trying to partner with an NGO because if we were to do fundraising on a larger level, we would have to have a complete foundation. We’d have o have an organization with

Clear parameters and bylaws and transparency while we’re handling this money. Because right now, we’re just punk-rocking it, and that’s cool. But when you go over a certain level, you can’t just punk rock it anymore.

IE: The song “Omens: is interesting. Because the omens are all there, but nobody seems to see them, right?

LRB: What I think you’re picking up on is how these things are, uhh, a bit sarcastic in a way? Because with “omens,” I’m a superstitious person, so don’t ever tell me your weird, idiosyncratic superstition because I will incorporate it and never go to a hair salon on Wednesday, say. And I’ve learned a lot of different superstitions over the years and from different countries. Like, for instance, in Japan, the number four is bad luck because it also has the same Kanji character as Death, so the Japanese don’t conduct business on the fourth of the month, and there’s no fourth floor in a lot of Japanese buildings, like the 13th floor here. So there are these weird quirks that I’ll internalize. That being said, I don’t really believe in omens. Like, if a raven flies down or a black cat crosses my path, I’m not like, “Oh, that’s terribly bad luck!” intellectually, I don’t believe in that stuff. When I think of the song “Omens” and the vibe I’m going for there, I think that these are more just continual obvious manifestations of historical patterns that maybe we, stupidly, aren’t paying attention to, you know? So it’s like, “Open your eyes, dummy!” You pretty much hit the nail on the head.

IE: Well, given subject matter like graves, ravens, black cats, and the ominous word “Nevermore,” I hear a lot of Poe in this album.

LRB: Yeah! And well, I live in Poe’s hometown. Despite the common misconception, he’s not from Baltimore or Boston. From about the age of one, he lived in Richmond — his mother was an actress, and his father split, his mother became very sick and became a bit of a cause celebre charity case for the rich women in Richmond — she got the consumption, as they called it, and she died, and they buried her in an unmarked grave up in Church Hill, the graveyard of the church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech.

IE: Doesn’t that fit into the record, as well?

LRB: Yes, it does. So she was buried in an unmarked grave because she was an actress, and even though everybody went to the theater at that time, it was considered a disreputable profession, particularly for women — they were looked at almost as if they were prostitutes. So they buried her in the church, but Edgar Allan Poe was adopted and started his writing life here — he was here into his twenties, and then off and on until his death, he came back. So there’s a lot of Poe in this record, and we have the Edgar Allan Poe Museum here, and I’m a member of it, which has the largest collection of Poe memorabilia in the world. You can go and see his hair, his documents that he hand wrote — he had beautiful handwriting. And there are a lot of different theories about what happened to him, so he was a troubled person. But he definitely redefined literature. And I’m a writer, I’m from Richmond, he’s from Richmond, so I’ve really gotten into the whole Poe thing more and more over the last few years.

IE: As legend has it, Poe grew so obsessed with the word ‘tintinabulation’ that he carried it around on a scrap of paper for ten years until he could finally use it in his poem “The Bells.”

LRB: Yeah! Well, I have, I suppose, a really more modern and shallow version of that. In the notes section of my iPhone, where I ferret words away for further use, sometimes a note will sit there for five years until I figure out, “Oh! I can put this in that song!” There was a great book that came out last year called Poe For Your Problems, by a local author, and it’s advice from the world’s least likely self-help person. But it’s got a lot of interesting things about Poe in it, and how you can learn from the way he lived his life, and he was cantankerous, to say the least.

IE: Going into the pandemic, I was reading a lot of Caitlin Doughty, books about death like Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs and From Here to Eternity. She’s actually in the funeral business and has a hilarious Gothic YouTube channel called Ask a Mortician. And it felt kind of comforting to reassure yourself of your own eventual mortality during Covid. I don’t know how you felt about it.

LRB: Yeah. It’s kind of like that for me, too. My grandmother died last summer — luckily, I was right at her side when she died, and she lived to be a hundred. And looking at her made me think a lot about my mortality, and there are certainly ways that I would not want to die — super painful ways that would not be enjoyable whatsoever. But the concept of death itself? I do not have a dread of it. I’ve just kind of come to accept it, like, it’s going to happen, so it’s pretty pointless to be afraid of it. And the more I accept it, the more I can enjoy the time I have here now.

-Tom Lanham

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